dot-font: It's Alive!
As you could see from my previous column, I've spent a lot time lately thinking about an upcoming Type Directors Club conference, and the exercise gave me a fine vista of an expansive topic. The one-day conference will address the topic of type on screen. The title? Why, what else could it be? "It's Alive!"
People have been reading words on screens of one sort or another for as long as screens have existed. On early movie screens, audiences had to read the dialog, given that there was no sound; the words appeared against a plain black background in between silent scenes. (By today's fast-cutting, multi-tasking standards, the dialog screens stayed up for a very long time, giving the audience a chance to read the lines before going back to the action.) Television showed words on screen from the very beginning -- not just in titles and credits, but also in advertisements. And who first invented "Follow the bouncing ball!" as a way for the audience to sing along with the lyrics of a song? (And then, who first thought of animating the letters so they could respond to the antics of the bouncing ball as it smashed into them? Splat!)
In more recent years, we've continued to see narrative bits appear in movies (think of the intro scrolling off into space in the original "Star Wars"), and we've gotten used to seeing highly imaginative treatments of type and lettering in the best movie title and credit sequences. On TV, type is everywhere, and it's usually in motion. Video artists have tried all sorts of new ways of using letters, and some of them have worked; the influence of MTV is obvious.
And of course we see letters on screens in the humblest possible places. Close-captioning on TV. Digital signs on the fronts of buses, or inside telling you what the next stop will be. Those moving news teletypes that stream across the faces of buildings, in Times Square and elsewhere. Video games. LED readouts on every sort of electronic doodad.
The area where type on screen is most problematic, and most in demand, however, is the computer. When computer monitors had no graphics capabilities, the letters simply marched across the screen in glowing lines, like the output of an ethereal typewriter. There was no choice of fonts; there was only one font, the alphabet created for display on that screen, and it was probably pretty bad. Remember the ugly, hard-to-read type on early DOS computers? The best "text-only" screens I ever saw were the Tandberg monitors we had hooked up to our CCI digital typesetting system at Microsoft Press in the early '80s: tall, flexible monitors with green screens and white or light-green letters that were better formed and better spaced than anything on a DOS machine at the time. I could work on those monitors for hours at a time without noticing that I was staring into a glowing screen. (When I was working on a single long project, like a book, eventually I could visualize the typographic effect of whatever changes I made, even though all I could see was codes embedded in the text stream -- but that's another story.)
The arrival of the Macintosh, and then its imitation by Windows, brought us bitmapped fonts, which looked different at each size because they were composed of specific combinations of pixels. (Now we've come back to this, though with new capabilities, in various fonts like Verdana and Georgia that are designed specifically for the screen.) Then we got outline fonts, which were scalable -- you could change the size at will -- but which still needed bitmapped equivalents to show up decently at small sizes. But outline fonts were "device independent": The finer the resolution they were displayed at, the better they looked.
To help with the problem of chunkiness at small sizes, anti-aliasing was born. The world of text became smooth and fuzzy.
Once letters became outlines, they could be treated as graphics. They began to take on three dimensions, or appear to. The obvious 3-D effects were things like shadowing and highlighting and burnishing, but the more interesting effects involved rotating the letters so that they seemed to move in space. A prototype for information design that Muriel Cooper created at the MIT Media Lab, as director of the Visual Language Workshop, showed what looked like huge panels of text floating in space, interweaving and interlocking endlessly. The closer you zoomed in on one panel, the deeper you could go into its data. With today's tools for setting type in motion and for scaling outlines without limit, this kind of organization of information might finally be feasible.
Reading on a Screen? Really?
You see why it gets interesting when you start talking about type on screen? And how big a subject it is? That's why the TDC is inviting a bunch of smart, talented people to Philadelphia next April 21, to look at all the varied aspects of screen type, from film credits to PDAs. Next week, I'll talk about the convergence of screens and publishing, and tell you more about "It's Alive!"
Read more by John D. Berry.
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